Book Review: A Commonplace Book of the Weird, edited by Joseph Fink

commonplaceThough H. P. Lovecraft is today considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, during his life his stories were mainly published in pulp magazines and he died in poverty in the 1930s.

Lovecraft is credited with creating the genre of cosmic horror, which emphasizes the idea that humans are insignificant and helpless in a universe of unknowably powerful beings over the gore and suspense elements of the usual horror story. He often missed school due to illness and led a reclusive adult life, never knowing his father who was placed in a psychiatric institution when Lovecraft was three, influencing the often friendless and mentally unstable protagonists he wrote.

A Commonplace Book of the Weird is a collection of short stories by twenty modern authors, each randomly assigned a prompt from Lovecraft’s book of unfinished story ideas. Some are full plot outlines, others as simple as “Dream of flying over city.”

My favorite story in this collection is “Relative Damnation” by Joseph Fink, which tells the story of a teenage boy who can save his father from going to hell after a deal with the devil, but only by giving up all of his possessions, education, relationship with his girlfriend, and chance at a happy future. It raises the question of whether successful people should feel they owe their happiness to the suffering of others, even if they didn’t ask for it.

Some more of my favorites are “Dissipation” by Daniel McCoy, a series of seemingly random scenes that come together to tell the story of a future apocalypse, and “The Impossible” by Will Hartwell and Christopher Scheer, an account of the supernatural incident that made a Victorian gentleman unwilling to leave his home, with a twist introduction of another famous mythos.

I think that the book’s weakest points are the stories that rely too heavily on surrealism and have no clear plot. Though the intent may be to make the reader feel as unsettled as the characters, the narratives sometimes come off as series of disjointed imagery rather than cohesive worldbuilding or plot. “Levittown” by Mark Farr has a promising start with an alternate history in which an astronaut from the 1800s attempts to go to the moon in a steampunk rocket, but ends up switching between the astronaut’s story and unrelated scenes of angels, modern-day children, a mysterious old man, and quotes from Lovecraft himself. Though it has excellent imagery and concepts, the story eventually becomes too muddled for the reader to follow.

As is usually the case with anthologies by multiple authors, I found this book to be a mixed bag with several outstandingly imaginative stories and others of varying quality. I would recommend A Commonplace Book of the Weird to anyone 14+ (for thematic elements) who enjoys horror, science fiction, or the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, which is written by two of the contributors.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

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